Axel Singhofen seems exhausted on this gloomy autumn morning in Brussels, his tall frame slumped in the chair of his new office in the European parliament.
He is a busy man. “When Reach [the chemicals regulation] was done people said ‘it must be nice for you, you must have lots of time now’,” he recalls. “I said ‘no, I still have to do the revision of the waste framework directive, which is very big and very complex and very controversial and then there are priority substances in water, and then mercury exports.’”
The list goes on – and however big the chemicals dossier was, it was just one subject. “Although Reach was a huge
amount of work and stress, at a certain moment you know things inside out and you can take a position quite quickly, whereas now you might not have one monster but five or six different files, each of which requires getting into.”
Mr Singhofen is advisor to the Greens/EFA group in the European parliament’s environment committee, dealing with chemicals, waste and health policy. It is a role that is unusually influential, thanks to the importance the Greens give to the committee and the responsibility they give to their advisors.
By making use of the options for bartering representation on committees, the Greens have a heightened presence on the environment committee: 10 per cent against the 5 per cent among all MEPs. They are also well-staffed, since the group chooses to spend its parliamentary allowance on advisors such as Singhofen rather than secretarial support. It has as many advisors in the committee as the largest group, the conservative EPP, and more than the socialists.
But the real difference comes in the role given to these advisors. While other parties leave the legislative process to MEPs and their assistants – some merely acting as a conduit for amendments proposed by lobbyists – the Green group advisors are employed specifically to scrutinise legislative proposals and write amendments that will ‘green’ them.
According to Mr Singhofen this expertise is recognised within the committee, not treated as another political position. “When people realise that one has a certain knowledge of things, then that is respected. Of course the best of all knowledge will not help you when people have different political views, but it does carry some weight.”
His role does not stop with drafting amendments.
He participates in discussions with the committee rapporteurs, sometimes alongside Green MEPs shadowing the process but more often on his own. This role continues into the negotiations between parliament, council and the commission. “I’m not just an observer checking what the rapporteur does, but taking the floor and trying to use the best arguments to win what has been adopted in committee.”
Mr Singhofen has led negotiations with the commission and council on behalf of Green rapporteurs unable to attend meetings, and even stood in for rapporteurs from other political groups.
Even he was taken aback at this. “The council and the commission respected me, a member of staff from a small group, as being the sole counterpart for the negotiations! Fortunately it worked.”
After growing up in Kiel, northern Germany, Mr Singhofen studied biology at Albert-Ludwigs University, Freiburg. Wanting to put his learning to practical use rather than go into research, he worked for SPOLD, a Brussels-based industry association promoting life-cycle assessment methods.
He was disappointed to find that the companies behind it failed to allow the method to have the greatest impact. “It was a convenient tool for them to make efficiency gains without really changing their overall set-up,” he recalls.
He left after a year, in 1996, to become toxics policy advisor at Greenpeace International’s European Unit – a position he held until coming to the Greens in 2001. While the decision to move was a difficult one at the time, Mr Singhofen doesn’t regret it.
“Here within the institutions you are more directly involved,” he explains, “you know what works and what doesn’t work, you get feedback just by seeing whether your amendments get through or not.”
It also provides a bit more distance compared to campaigning. “Here you know it’s a democratic process
and if you lose then you lose. You still have the same commitment to your work but the defeats and responsibility are not as personal.”
While not lacking passion about his subject, Mr Singhofen demonstrates a pragmatism that is unusual for someone with a background in the environmental movement. “The NGOs always aim high, and I will also start off with the strongest possible view that I can justify,” he says. “But I’d rather do a little less and be on solid ground than go for the maximum, be considered a fool and not get anything.”
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